RealTime IT News

Cops And Data Robbers Get Mention on Hill

Reporter's Notebook: Should Internet service providers (ISPs) be required to retain customer records for a longer period than is currently required by law?

Last month, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested a change in the law might be necessary for the Department of Justice (DoJ) to pursue its campaign against online child pornographers.

ISPs are required to keep customer information for 180 days. Gonzales has floated the idea of a two-year retention period.

To show his seriousness about the issue, Gonzales convened a June 2 secret meeting in Washington with a number of technology firms, including Microsoft, Google, AOL, AT&T, Time Warner and Comcast, to discuss the matter.

Tuesday afternoon, though, Gonzales told reporters, "We've made no decision on that. We don't know if we need legislation yet."

As for the secret meeting, "We had a good faith dialogue on the issue. It was a very fruitful meeting."

Data Brokers Take The Fifth: An unusual scene unfolded Thursday afternoon at a House hearing on data brokers.

The Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating the activities of data brokers selling non-public telephone records over the Internet. Thursday, 11 data brokers responded to subpoenas to appear before the committee.

"Did you and your company, Worldwide Investigations, obtain and sell consumer cell phone records and other non-public personal information that was obtained through pretext, lies, deceit or impersonation," Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield asked John Strange of Denver.

Strange replied: "Mr. Chairman, at this time I'd like to invoke my Fifth Amendment right."

The other 10 data brokers proceed to invoke their own rights not to incriminate themselves.

"What we have found to date has been eye-opening to say the least," Whitfield said of the panel's four-month investigation. "There are hundreds of data broker companies operating on the Internet."

"They offer just about any non-public information under the sun -- cell phone, landline call records, bank account activity, post office boxes, credit card transaction histories -- it goes on and on."

In March, the Energy and Commerce Committee approved on a 41-0 vote the Prevention of Fraudulent Access to Phone Records Act.

The legislation authorizes the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to shut down data broker sites selling non-public information.

"I doubt very many Americans know that their personal and professional lives are this vulnerable to casual examination by strangers, even in the age of the Internet," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Unfortunately, brokers routinely lie to get their hands on this information and then sell the records to buyers who evidently don't care. And right now, some of this, maybe even all of it, seems to be legal."

H.R. 4943 is pending before the full House.

Cops Love Data Brokers?: Data brokers selling illegal information is not the only thing uncovered by the House investigation. It seems some law enforcement officials use the sites to bypass those pesky subpoenas so often required by the courts.

Barton, a law-and-order guy of the first rank, also had some choice words for those law enforcement officials.

"It is my understanding that when these records and information are not public, the government must have a warrant, a subpoena or an administrative subpoena to obtain access to such information," Barton said Thursday.

"If law enforcement agencies use their existing powers to get these warrants and subpoenas, it would seem to me they don't have to go to a data broker; they can legitimately get the information they need directly from the carriers through normal, legal processes."

Missed The Meeting: Florida Democrat Bill Nelson startled a number of observers Thursday afternoon at a markup session on the massive telecom reform bill before the Senate Commerce Committee.

"It seems to me we're rewriting the 1996 Telecom Act," he opined.

Well, yes, senator, it's been on your agenda for the past 18 months.

Roy Mark is a senior editor and Washington D.C. bureau chief for internetnews.com.